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New Delhi: Hands planted firmly on the mottled grey steering wheel of her Tata Indigo, Shanti Sharma brings the car to a smooth stop with a smile. A petite woman dressed smartly in a fitted sky-blue salwar kameez and dainty gold earrings, Sharma hardly mirrors the image of the typical Delhi taxi driver. “Sometimes men pass comments," she murmurs, honking loudly and swerving to the right as a hulking black SUV (sport utility vehicle) rudely cuts her off. “They don’t see how a woman can be a taxi driver. But it doesn’t bother me."

Shanti Sharma .Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In July, Sharma’s hometown, Guwahati, made headlines when a teenage girl was publicly molested by a gang of 40 men for nearly an hour. While the incident was recorded and broadcast on television, no one intervened to stop the violence.

Concern over such incidents is one reason why Amita Puri says that she prefers female cab drivers. “I have been using (Sakha) for the past two-three years, and now I just feel that there are no other options," she says. “I would choose a woman driver over a man driver any day. I find them more reliable and safe in terms of how they drive, and I feel more comfortable with them."

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Becoming a taxi driver wasn’t just a job for Shanti Sharma, but a life-changing experience—from a stay-at-home mother of three daughters, and a victim of domestic violence, to a confident, single, working woman, and the sole breadwinner of her family.

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It’s not just Sharma’s clients who have benefited from the security of her taxi cab. Getting a job as a driver completed Sharma’s own transformation from a submissive stay-at-home mother of three daughters, to a confident, single, working woman, and the sole breadwinner of her family.

It was not an easy journey: in India, driving is still considered a man’s job. The vast majority of taxi drivers, commercial truck drivers and auto-rickshaw drivers are men. For Sakha, recruiting, training and nurturing suitable female drivers has been the biggest challenge in maintaining the business.

“Driving is looked upon as a man’s job. It’s very gender-biased," says Nayantara Janardhan, chief operating officer of Sakha. “Drivers have a very negative reputation—people think they drink, chew tobacco, smoke beedis, or steal petrol from company cars, are on the road at all hours and make friends with people who aren’t the best—those are the concerns that family members come up with."

As a girl growing up in a conservative Hindu household in Assam, Sharma was rarely permitted to leave the house, except to go to school or to the temple. When she turned 16, her father—a coal trader, gambler and alcoholic—began arranging a match with a local boy from her village, the only son of a wealthy family who owned a string of restaurants and hotels in the area.

“But he wasn’t a good man," Sharma observes. “He would bully the girls in school and had so many affairs. I knew I wouldn’t be happy with him." Although her mother told her she could veto the match if she wanted, Sharma doubted her father would listen.

Elopement and misery

Instead, Sharma opted to elope with a young Nepali named Narayan Sharma, whom she’d seen working in a shop she used to pass on the way to school. He was quiet, spoke respectfully to the women who patronized the shop, and often went to the temple. Rather than marry her father’s choice, she wrote to Narayan, begging him to come and take her with him to Delhi. A few weeks later he showed up on her doorstep, and the next day they were on a bus after leaving a note for her parents.

The excitement Sharma felt on the way to Delhi was short-lived. Three days after their wedding, her new husband raped her and her illusions were stripped away. Then he began to beat her regularly. She discovered that while she had completed Class X, her husband was illiterate, insecure and extremely jealous of any man he suspected she might fancy—even his own relatives. “I realized then what a mistake I’d made," Sharma says.

The situation worsened after she began to have children—three girls in seven years. “When she was only two, he beat my youngest so hard that her ear started to bleed," Sharma says. “Once, when he was hitting my eldest daughter, he told her ours was a failed marriage because I had not given him any sons."

In this regard, Sharma’s experience is far from exceptional. A 2010 study by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey found that of six developing countries surveyed across four continents, Indian men scored the worst in terms of “equitable" attitudes towards women: 58% said that women should “tolerate violence to keep the family together", 64% said that “women sometimes deserve violence", and 20% admitted to having sexually assaulted their partner at least once. The most frequently cited causes of domestic violence were desire for more dowry, unemployment among men, frustration over the absence of sons and suspected infidelity. Though Sharma says she feared her husband, she did not leave him. When money became short, however, he agreed to let her work. Her first job, ironically, was collecting data for a non-governmental organization that counselled victims of domestic violence. Sharma didn’t tell her employers about the daily beatings she had received for the past nine years, though they were clearly in a position to help. “I felt that somehow I was to blame," she explains. “I had picked this man myself—I was ashamed."

Although rates of domestic violence are alarmingly high in India (roughly seven out of 10 households report some experience of it) very few women in Sharma’s position leave abusive situations, according to Manasi Mishra, head of research at Centre for Social Research (CSR). “Society normally doesn’t accept divorces, as the relationship is between two families, not just two individuals," says Mishra. “Due to that (women) are forced to live within the institution of marriage even if they are not happy." Either way, because her husband often refused to let her leave the house, Sharma’s attendance soon became erratic and she lost the job.

When Sharma approached Sakha for work, “I was only thinking of earning a little extra money," she says. But learning to drive would prompt other changes too. Each of Sakha’s potential drivers is trained in English, grooming, driving lessons, self-defence, and “know-your-rights" classes before they are allowed to work as paid drivers. “I started to realize that I didn’t just have to submit to the abuse," Sharma says.

Then there was the driving; sitting behind the wheel of a car felt daring to Sharma. It was a forbidden act—something allowed to men and brothers and sons, but not to a housewife like her. “It was the first time I had ever been in a car," she says. “I didn’t know what a steering wheel was, or what the gears did. Everything was new. They had to teach me everything." Sensitive to her discomfort, her trainer eased her into it, starting in empty parking lots and quiet residential roads. Soon, Sharma began to enjoy the thrill of independence that driving gave her. She wasn’t even bothered by the honking of horns or angry traffic.

Passing the test

On the day of her driving test though, Sharma was terrified. “For me, it felt like life or death," she says. “If I got the job, my entire life would be changed. If I didn’t, I would slide back into the life I had before." She got behind the wheel of a MarutiAlto and began to negotiate the relatively tame streets of Vasant Vihar in south Delhi. She passed easily and her new-found confidence soon spilled into her marriage. At home, she didn’t allow her husband to touch her or her daughters—in fact, she stopped talking to him entirely.

“In my mind, the marriage was over," she says. “My husband realized I was not the same woman I was before."

One day, while she and her three daughters watched in silence, he came home, packed his bags and left. Sharma moved her daughters to a new apartment, and has not seen him since.

Despite the frequent news reports of rapes, honour killings and domestic violence, authorities have been slow to respond and appear to put the responsibility for the crime on the victim. Earlier this year, when a female employee at a mall was gang-raped by seven men on her way home from work, the Gurgaon police issued a notice to women not to leave home after 8pm. After the Guwahati molestation, Mamta Sharma, chairperson for the National Commission for Women, suggested that women be “careful about the way they dress", because “aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen".

Mishra of CSR argues that such reactions are not meaningful. By “saying that women shouldn’t go out after 8pm, or should dress decently, they are, in essence, blaming the woman for the crimes against her", she says.

Today, Sharma’s confidence is obvious the moment she slides behind the wheel. She navigates Delhi’s chaotic streets with a calmness worthy of her name, gliding between buses and cars with an unflappable resolve. Her three daughters sit behind her. The smallest one, six-year-old Shruti, stands behind the driver’s seat and whispers noisily in her mother’s ear while she drives. “She is asking about all the cars—where are they going, and why are they going there," Sharma explains. “She says she wants to learn how to drive too."

Suman, the eldest, sits primly in the back seat with her legs folded and a wide smile. Suman, who suffered frequent beatings by her father, says she is happy he has left, and is proud of her mother. “She has a good job, and she provides for us," she adds.

Sharma is fully cognizant of the many stereotypes she is defying. “Women are told to be good daughters, good mothers, good wives. But they are never told to think of themselves," she says. “I want my daughters to be independent, to get educated and have good careers first. Then, later, if they really want to, they can get married."

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